Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Russian Wedding

This past Saturday I got to experience my first real Russian wedding. I'd been to two last year, but both were Russian/Kazakh-American.

My assistant for the past two years, Y., was marrying her boyfriend of five years. Five years is a long time to wait for a proposal in Kazkhastan.

I got to witness bits and pieces of the planning, which were very similar to what I know about planning a wedding in the US—lots of tiny details, lots of stress, lots of time, lots of money. I watched her choose wedding invitations, narrowing it down to three that she couldn't decide between. I watched her try to figure out how to make a guest book (an American thing, I think, since she couldn't buy one here and had to make her own). I watched her stress about the candles at the restaurant... The same things an American bride stresses about in the months leading to her wedding.

I don't know how much the whole thing cost, but I do know that her wedding dress cost more than my sister's. (And it was incredibly beautiful.)  But this is a city where a typical salary is about $300 a month, so that makes the wedding suddenly so expensive!

The wedding started at 5:30 pm and at 4:50 I was finishing up my hair when my Kazakh friend came over to watch Sophia. She offered to help with my hair, and as I worried about being late—the restaurant was located over a half hour drive away—she reassured me that being late won't matter. Then I learned that the wedding I had been invited to was most likely the wedding reception. The actual vows, exchanging of rings, signing of papers, is usually done with just a few witnesses.

I made it 45 minutes late, and the bride and groom had yet to arrive. They came shortly after, in a large hummer-like car decorated with ribbons and flowers. Everyone stood outside the restaurant and cheered as they came out.

I learned at last year's wedding between a local and a Korean-American that wedding receptions here often have hosts/hostesses/DJs—I'm not sure what their official title would be. A woman in a blue dress was in charge of this evening's events. Before we entered the restaurant, she had the bride and groom drink champagne (the traditional way, arms intertwined), and then throw their empty champagne glasses on the pavement.

Then they were presented with bread, and most likely told its significance, before we all went inside.

There I found three other co-workers (all locals, since all the foreigners had already left the country) and they showed me our table. Then we presented the bride with flowers and hugged her and shook hands with the groom. Then we returned to our table, where waiters dutifully served us drinks and we could munch on appetizers. Throughout the evening, my glasses never made it half-empty, they were always refilled. And the different courses were brought out so staggered that we didn't get dessert until after midnight.

I'm sorry to say that I did not find the appetizers to be very appealing. Ther were some cold cuts of unkown meat, some salads, including one with fish (but none of the “American”-style salad of fresh lettuce and vegetables). The bread was good, as was the one platter of fresh veggies.

The evening—which lasted well past midnight—consisted of a pattern like this—activity, speeches, dancing, repeat, all the while eating and drinking.

First, everyone was introduced. The host announced a group of people, such as the bride's mother's coworkers, and they all stood up and everyone clapped.

The next activity was a magician. I've never actually seen a magician live, and was rather impressed. I couldn't figure out how he did it! He put a lemon in a guillotine and sliced it cleanly in two. Then he put the best man's head in the same guillotine, rammed the blade down, and the best man's head stayed on (of course). He called out the bride and groom and turned fire into two doves, which they held. It was good show.

Another activity was a special dance. The groom's mother works in a theater, and two dancers work with her. So they came out and performed a dance for everyone.

The bride and groom had prepared a dance, as well. This was interesting, because it was more than your usual “first dance” at American weddings. They had obviously rehearsed, and it looked more like a performance you might see on “Dancing with the Stars.” They acted and danced to many different songs, starting with “I Will Always Love You.” It was very beautiful, and quite a performance. And yes, I'm getting ideas for my own far-off-in-the-future wedding, should that ever occur.

Between activities, as I said, were speeches. I counted—there were about 10 people at each table, and about 8 tables. A group at a time was calleed up to give speeches. I think that techincally, only one or two people from each group needed to give a speech, but in the end, usually everyone in the group gave a speech. Some of the speeches were short--”I wish you happiness!” Some were very long. What on earth could people be saying for so long?

Luckily, my coworkers had already planned something, and I didn't have to speak. Though I do wish they had told me; they had it writen, and they didn't realize that I can read Russian quite well. So I could have participated.

My coworkers originally wanted to leave before 10:30, so they could catch a bus home, but I am so glad that they decided to stay later. By 10:30 the main dish had yet to be served!

The second coursse (which I had at first thought was the main course) consisted of some purple beet salad and something like meatloaf. The main course was a very large pike—one per table—that had been cut into sections, with lemon slices between each section, but still very much looking like a fish. I really wished I hadn't lost my camera so I could have taken a good picture of it!

For another activity, they pulled out two chairs into the center of the room. The best man had to get the maid of honor from one chair to the other, without her ever touching the ground, ten times, in ten different ways. The maid of honor was wearing a very short dress, so this was quite difficult to do without compromising her dignity. I don't think they made it to 10, but I was impressed with how creative they got. At one point, he lay on the ground, aand his friends helped her to walk across him.

(I also learned that here the maid of honor can't be married or divorced.  So my friend had a hard time finding a maid of honor, since most of her friends were already married.)

Another activity was a dance contest, where the two professional dancers picked the winners. First, several people danced, and a few were eliminated. Then the contestants had to dance while sitting. The next round, they had to stay sitting but couldn't movee their legs. Then they could only move their faces.

By this point, the groom's friends were completely drunk, and kept trying to join the dancing contest, no matter how many times they were kicked out.

A laptop, projector, and sceen were brought out, and they played a speech from a family member who could not attend. A short while later, they showed a music video, a “love story.” When my assistant had talked about this, I thought she meant a slideshow of pictures. But it was really was a music video that the two of them had made, to Aerosmith's song, "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing."

At one point, the lights were turned off and the bride sang a song for us. At another point, she threw her bouquet and the groom threw her garter.  I was informed that the bouquet and garter tosses were new traditions taken from the West.

After each activity and/or speech, music played and people came onto the dance floor to dance. This was fun to watch, as the older people just loved to dance and had so much fun dancing. An elderly gentleman (a former booxer, I learned) picked up his wife and swung her around merrily. People really got into it, kicking their legs to older Russian music, forming circles and dancing around the bride.

Sometime after midnight, before the cake but after the pike, all the lights were turned off and everyone was handed a tea candle. We gathered around the bride and groom in the center, sitting in front of a table with two large candles as well as tea candles forming the shape of a heart. We stood there for quite some time while the hostess talked in a quiet, serious voice. This was the time when the parents gave them away, when the bride became a wife and the groom became a husband. She put on a white scarf and he put on a white cap to symbolize this.

After cake, the hostess announced awards and the bride had to pick which guest got the award. For example, the loudest, the quietest, the most drunk. The prizes were thinigs like sponges and toilet paper.

I would have loved to stay later, but my co-workers had called a taxi for me, and I had only one day left to pack before flying to the US for the summer, so I said my good-byes and left. Although 80 speeches can get to be a bit much, I really enjoyed the wedding. I enjoyed the festivity, the activities, the dancing, and how it was really made into a special event for the bride and groom, as well as  for their guests.

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